ST. MARY’S CITY – The project was simple. Transform a tennis court into a small parking lot. A little digging, a little paving, an in-and-out job.
No one, certainly not the St. Mary’s College of Maryland crew doing the construction, expected to uncover the 17th century foundation of the state’s first prison.
Hundreds of times a year across the state, historical archeologists with an eye to the past engage in a high stakes tango with forward-looking developers. But perhaps nowhere in Maryland is the dance danced more frequently than in St. Mary’s City — where a rapidly growing public liberal arts college sits atop one of the state’s most important historical sites.
The 1994 prison discovery proved an important find, said Henry Miller, director of research for Historic St. Mary’s City — Maryland’s first capital from 1634 to 1695.
“It was a key part of the town plan,” he said.
Since 1985, the college has almost doubled its interior space — including a new student center, a revamped social science building, and student townhouses. A new gym and more student residences are on the way. All that construction had to be done with deference to history, said Chip Jackson, the college’s associate vice president for facilities.
“Is it a challenge? Of course it’s a challenge. Is it a good challenge? Is it the right challenge? Of course it is,” he said.
Initially, the college paid little attention to the historical value of the land that it was developing, which angered HSMC, Miller said. By the mid-90s that attitude changed.
The school has now funneled $800,000 to HSMC to survey the entire campus for artifact-rich sites before development takes place. The project is 90 percent complete, Miller said.
During major construction projects near especially important areas, the school sometimes picks up the tab for HSMC “watchers” — trained archeologists who can temporarily halt construction if workers find an artifact missed in the initial survey. Jackson also said contractors are occasionally ordered to use techniques and tools that are slower and less efficient, but have less chance of hurting something of historical importance.
St. Mary’s City may be a rich source of archeological gems, but such finds can occur anywhere.
Almost every medium to large-scale business or residential development project has to comply with a host of federal, state, and in the case of Anne Arundel, county laws protecting historical sites. Compliance means the developer must, at minimum, conduct a historical study or site survey for important artifacts. If important artifacts are found, the developer must redesign the project to leave the site intact, or, in very rare cases, remove the artifacts.
The latter, which is known as “data recovery,” rarely happens, said Beth Cole, administrator of project review and compliance for the Maryland Historical Trust. The trust is a state agency that monitors compliance with state and federal historical preservation laws.
“We review about 4,000 projects a year,” she said. “The number that go to data recovery is less than 10.”
R. Christopher Goodwin, an archeologist whose Frederick-based R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates helps developers comply with the federal and state laws, said many of his clients do site surveys soon after purchasing property.
“You want to know whether or not you have any issues before you get down the road,” he said.
Developers are sometimes rewarded for their archeological efforts. For example, if a sensitive site is found and preserved, the untouched easement usually counts towards the development’s green space requirements. If the developer foots the bill to uncover artifacts, a tax break can result if the historical items are turned over to the state.
But Marshall Zinn, a project manager for Columbia-based Russett Center Ltd. Partnership, said the developments that he’s worked on have received little tangible benefit from archeological finds.
“There’s definitely a cost associated with it,” he said.
Discoveries of Native American sites delayed one of his company’s largest developments, Russett, a planned 613-acre, 3,800-unit community near Laurel built over 13 years.
The finds, “didn’t do a whole lot for the project,” he said. “We used it in some of our marketing, naming streets. But it didn’t make a huge contribution in our ability to sell lots, or the developer’s ability to sell homes.”
As for tax breaks, Zinn said they never materialized. In that case, the archeological expenditures were “just the cost of doing business,” he said.
Nonetheless, Goodwin said an early discovery in the planning phase can save money in the construction phase.
“It’s important to not have to stop during a project to consult with the state agency,” he said.
In financial terms, “That can be a nightmare situation,” he said.
Many anti-development activists look to an archeological discovery to stop a project, but Cole said that almost never happens.
“The laws aren’t set up to stop development, but to preserve archeology,” she said. “Ultimately, the development will go forward.”
Which is what happened to the St. Mary’s College parking lot, Miller said.
“The prison was literally right under a road,” he said.
The brick foundation was uncovered and removed for preservation and future study and the parking lot was built. Laughing in mock disbelief, he added, “they wanted to use the darn road still, you know.”